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A mysterious, wealthy businesswoman from humble village roots who called herself “Madame.”
A dream of Disney World.
Michael Jackson’s father.
RECon 2010 (Retail Real Estate Convention), Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
Tucked away from the throngs of attendees and presenters (including Sarah Palin that year), a lone, middle-aged Vietnamese woman and her American, Las-Vegas-based architect stand behind a $60,000 model and greet a slow, but steady, stream of curious onlookers. They have come to examine the detailed 12-foot-long mock-up of Happyland, a proposed theme park modeled after Disney World and Universal Studios to be built southwest of Ho Chi Minh City in the rural province of Long An.
The world was still reeling from the real estate collapse and financial crisis of 2008. Credit was tight. But money will always flow where it smells a return. Questions were asked and answered, potential gauged, risks assessed and rewards estimated. Some investors turned away, while others lingered a while longer. There was a cautious optimism about the endeavor. Could it work? A theme park in the middle of nowhere in a socialist country? The rusty handle of the Capital Spigot (aka the Money Hose) began to loosen…
One and a half years after the RECon show, Handan and I stood at the temporary gates of the Happyland construction site. A banner hung below the “Happyland” lettering that read, “Welcome Joe Jackson, Friend of Vietnam!” We drove through the gate and made our way across a muddy expanse to the Hill International site offices located at the far end of the grounds. Hill had been contracted to be the project management team for the theme park, and Handan was the project controls manager for Hill. This was a $7 billion project, so having a team of experts like Hill overseeing all phases of design and construction was crucial to its smooth implementation. At that time, though, the site was nothing more than mud, vegetation and scaffolding.
Work was scheduled to take 2 1/2 years, and the park was to have its grand opening on the birthday of its visionary benefactor on April 24, 2014.
Madame Thao, the woman behind the project, was a mystery. She was a multi-millionaire real estate developer who hailed from the very same rural province in which Handan and I then stood. That was extremely rare in socialist Vietnam, where money usually flowed from money. To have a self-made multi-millionaire, and a woman, to boot, was exceptional. Little was known about her past. Much was conjectured.
One thing was certain: like John Hammond, the eccentric billionaire behind Jurassic Park, Madame Thao intended to spare no expense. Though the theme park had scarcely been started, Madame Thao’s personal gardens and offices were long underway. Eventually, those buildings and green spaces would be a part of the park, but just then, they were her personal Shangri-La, a place filled with priceless treasures of the Orient and a few from the Occident as well. Handan and I, along with one of her coworkers and one of the directors of Hill, took a stroll through Madame Thao’s secret garden one Saturday. This is what we saw.
A humble approach…
This slab of exotic hardwood probably weighs more than my car.
I smell a knockoff project!! 😀
Why can’t we find chairs like these at Put and Take??
Ancient Chinese beer-chugging vessel.
Next time I see that chair on Craigslist, I’m totally getting it.
Ditto the bench.
On second thought, I can probably carve that, right?
Probably the first motorcycle. Ever.
Finally, a chair worthy of my Royal Ass! [Royal Pain-in-the-Ass is more like it! -Handan]
I think she bought an original Wells Fargo carriage and did a little DiY makeover on it.
Probably the fountain of youth. Obviously, I didn’t drink from it.
Ivory from 100 magical Olyphant tusks.
Germany in the house!
I tried to eat my lunch at this table, but I was chased off by a squadron of yammering gardeners.
Sure was a whole lot of gardening going on…
Really, there were more gardeners than construction workers.
These trees were stolen from Dr Seuss.
Oh, I’m sorry, were you trying to build something back there? Well, carry on…don’t let my priceless treasures slow you down.
I also enjoy playing the flute while riding a water buffalo.
Call security! There’s an American pig on the loose!
No, I’m not jealous of that wood, why do you ask?
It suits me. I want one.
It’s time to upgrade our bed.
And if all of the above weren’t enough, there was a huge open warehouse filled with more treasures that hadn’t yet been placed.
Lost amid the heaps of exotic wood was this model of what was to be built. The part pictured is where we just were. There would also be a floating market and several 5 star hotels, in addition to the rides, attractions and acres of high-end retail.
And none of it ever materialized. To this day, the site remains a quagmire, bogged down by red tape, broken promises and skittish investors.
Joe Jackson turned out to be a total smoke show. He promised money and investors, but the only thing he delivered was some memorabilia from the estate of Michael Jackson. Items from the MJ estate were spotted at a reception that Handan attended at the park to celebrate the commencement of work. Joe was in attendance, as well as many local celebrities. When word got out and back to the states about certain items now in the possession of Madame Thao, there were some angry folks back at the MJ estate. It appeared that the father was not authorized to abscond with the treasures of his son’s estate.
After a time, Joe’s influence faded, his banner was torn down, and the project carried on without him.
But then the rumblings began within Hill. They were not getting paid by Madame Thao’s company. Month after month, the answer was “We’re working on securing some financing. You’ll be paid next month.” But they never did and Hill never was. Not a company to throw good money after bad, Hill eventually pulled out of the project. That marked the end of our time in Vietnam, 9 months after we had arrived. But that was still in the future, and until then, we still had a lot of stories to make, and I will have a lot of stories still to tell.
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